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Sports, Virtue, and the Human Person

Perhaps I am simply a hopeless Luddite, but I find myself troubled by the recent push (by ESPN and others) toward competitive video gaming—“eSports”—as existing on a level playing field with traditional sports like football and baseball. This trend seems to violate some quintessence of sport, a set of characteristics that is compromised by massive expansion of one’s definitional boundaries. I suggest that our intuitive definitions of sport—definitions which would exclude professional video gaming—are bound up with an unconsciously orthodox concept of human identity. I am by no means the first writer to discuss the moral foundations of sports; however, examining sports as a reflection of our comprehensive and uniquely human experience—and how this applies to the eSports context—is an investigative task not yet widely performed.

Traditional Christian teachings support the belief that human beings develop along physical, mental, and spiritual axes (with all due respect to St. Augustine, a trichotomous view of humanity was espoused by early church fathers like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Irenaeus, and Gregory of Nyssa). The embodiedness of humanity—and the frailties and limitations associated with our physical flesh—is an essential feature of our experience. Our rational faculties allow us to make choices and decisions, and forge plans for the future. And spiritually, we possess a sensus divinitatis through which we recognize and long for an ultimate transcendence beyond ourselves—the corollaries of this awareness, in turn, being our moral rights and duties and a conscience cognizant of these.

For the term “sport” to mean anything at all, it must possess some distinct conceptual boundaries; I tentatively suggest here a definition of “sport” that both accords with the general intuitions of most people and reflects an orthodox understanding of the human person. I submit that a sport is a rule-bound activity, built around an articulable metric of performance vis-à-vis other participants, entailing the cultivation of physical, mental, and spiritual virtues. By physical virtues, I refer to a lifestyle oriented towards health and fitness, and by association, the honing of one’s physical faculties for testing in the context of sport. By mental virtues, I refer to the strategic calculations and decision-making sophistication that differentiate complex human behavior and displays of raw power. And by spiritual virtues, I refer to the oughtness of sportsmanship—the norms which attach moral significance to rule-oriented conduct, which one is ideally taught to respect as one engages with a sport. The ramifications of this definition are perhaps best grasped by identifying certain sport-like activities that do not meet this standard.

Sport Without Mind: Tug-of-war exemplifies an activity where physical and spiritual virtues may be cultivated, but that lacks a pathway by which mental virtues are developed. Quibbles over organizational strategy aside, tug-of-war requires little strategy on the part of its participants. The focus of the activity is the exercise of one squad’s brute power against another. Accordingly, tug-of-war should not be considered a “sport.”

Sport Without Soul: An example of an activity emphasizing physical and mental virtues, but lacking a means by which spiritual virtues are developed, is skee-ball. Spiritual virtues, and the overarching normativity thereof, are inculcated in the shadow of a preexisting tradition. In the sporting world, for example, the participant learns humility by way of comparison to past greats, develops a sense of duty to one’s teammates, and is taught to display graciousness in both victory and defeat. It is difficult to describe skee-ball—an arcade game played by one person—as a forum where such spiritual virtues are cultivated (though if the activity were to evolve toward embracing a regimented rule structure and a general governance architecture, the spiritual virtues of sport might be made manifest).

Sport Without Body: It is wholly possible—and indeed, likely—that mental (strategic) and spiritual (moral and relational) virtues may be cultivated through eSports. However—if one accepts my prior premise that, properly and intuitively understood, sport endeavors to develop the totality of the person—something essential is missing. Insofar as sport qua sport is intrinsically oriented toward the holistic development of the human person, the pro-eSports cabal exhibits a sort of drive-by Gnosticism. To suggest that competitive video gaming is a sport is to suggest that there are no sport-linked virtues that are uniquely instantiated in the physical context (treating poker or chess as “sports” commits the same error).

Conceptualizing sports as reflecting the interlocking virtues of human experience has two major advantages: not only does it provide a useful outer definitional bound, but it also helps explain why we continue to find sports compelling. I am personally inclined to see baseball as the metaphysically preeminent sport (an opinion wonderfully articulated by theologian David Bentley Hart), but the vast majority of mainstream/established sports are indeed oriented toward the virtues explored above. Even failed sports, like jai alai, fall within this tradition. One must, however, draw the line somewhere—and competitive video gaming crosses a threshold that threatens to render the concept of sport inoperative.

While “eActivities” may not be as catchy a title as “eSports,” it is likely a more apt descriptor. That said, while “sports” (at least under the framework I envision) might not encompass such activities, perhaps these activities may be described more constructively as skills or crafts demanding the exercise of human talent and creativity. eSports may not belong on ESPN—and may not cultivate the same personal virtues corresponding to aspects of the human identity—but as forms of entertainment understood in a more circumscribed way, they  may indeed serve constructive ends.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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